Excerpt: Gymnast Rachel Haines details abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar in new book 

click to enlarge COURTESY OF RACHEL HAINES
  • Courtesy of Rachel Haines

The following is an abridged excerpt from Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture, out April 12 on Rowman & Littlefield. Reader discretion is advised. My story contains vulnerable, personal, and explicit descriptions of my experiences as a gymnast. This includes multiple depictions of my interactions with U.S. gymnastics team doctor and convicted serial child molester Larry Nassar and U.S. Olympic gymnastics coach John Geddert.

A plea: Please do not assume my experiences were the same as anyone else's accounts. Though there are hundreds of other survivors, my story is only mine, and I did not write this book to explain the accounts of others. As a survivor, I wholeheartedly believe everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard. Everyone's experiences matter equally and should be equally trusted and believed.

This story is mine, and mine alone. I am Survivor 195.

Unexpectedly in eighth grade, I went through my first emotional distress with gymnastics.

It was a normal day; all of my teammates and I stood huddled near our lockers before practice started. We were training for our second Nationals, so practices were fun and lighthearted. But then our coach came to us with none of her usual peppy enthusiasm and said she had news.

She explained that our gym had been sold and purchased by a new owner who wanted to clear out the coaching staff and start over. In other words, our coach was leaving. I know this had a traumatic effect on me because of how vividly I remember that day. Our team was in chaos. Moms snatched their daughters moments after the news broke and stated, "We're going to try out other gyms right now and see what is a good fit. We will keep you posted on what we find."

In their defense, quick action was needed. This change had occurred two weeks before Nationals. We needed gyms to train at, and we needed our coach — who had gotten us this far — to continue coaching us. There was a clear panic that overtook our gym, and I felt a buzz of emotions that I couldn't handle. I believe at this moment, I had my very first anxiety attack.

I had no idea where I was going to go.

Did I want to go to a different gym?

My coach connected with numerous gyms in the hopes of finding one that would let her team train there until Nationals. She called many gyms that morning with the goal of finding one that could keep us all together in one place. Only one coach responded with genuine empathy and welcomed us along with our coach into his gym: Gedderts' Twistars.

click to enlarge ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD
  • Rowman & Littlefield

Everyone knew this gym. It had the most accomplished and competitive reputation in the nation. It housed Elite Program competitors, National Champions, and hopeful Olympians. Gymnasts feared the blue leotards that were worn by Twistars gymnasts. Seeing them walk into competitions meant accepting second place. John Geddert had established himself as a successful coach and built up his reputation to make himself a respected figure in the gymnastics world. Everyone knew him. He walked with such power and leadership that it was terrifying to look at. There was no denying that he was the most intimidating figure in the gymnastics world.

Here he was, inviting us into his gym, giving us full access to prepare for Nationals. He hired our coach so she would be able to coach us through the remainder of the season and still earn a living. He made me question my previously drawn negative conclusions about his personality. He was selflessly giving us his gym, knowing he would not get any credit for it at Nationals.

I remember my first practice at Twistars vividly. My team and I huddled together in a close circle before practice began as the Twistars girls huddled in their own cluster on the other side of the floor. We followed them through warm-ups, let them lead us through stretches, and followed the structure they did for practices. I was put on bars first. I wanted to do everything to stay out of the way of the Twistars team. After all, I was invading their gym. It seemed like every girl was training for Nationals there, and nobody was taking it lightly.

I guess that is the difference between a gym that makes qualifiers and a gym that breeds champions.

Switching gyms and equipment in gymnastics is a lot harder than you can imagine. For example, each beam is dramatically different. You get some that have sharp edges, some that are slippery, and some that feel two inches wide instead of four. Bars are all different, too. Some are wobbly, some are bouncy, and some are so tight they don't move the way we need them to in order to successfully perform our skills. Every gym that I have ever been to has a "good" set of bars that every girl prefers to use. Conversely, every gym has a "bad" set of bars everyone avoids. Being a brand-new member of the gym, I had no idea which set was which at Twistars.

But I learned quickly.

Nobody was using the red Spieth bars, and there were lines for the other sets. I wanted to impress John with my effort and willingness to take hundreds of turns since I was not going to impress him with my gymnastics. I volunteered myself to use the untouched Spieth bars.

Dumb.

These bars were the bounciest set I had ever used. They wobbled and shifted at every movement, and catching a release — let alone hitting a handstand — was near impossible for someone who had never used them before. I looked like a mess, and I felt even worse. I took thirty turns, all unsuccessful at completing even half of a routine. After falling for what felt like the thousandth time, I saw John watching.

I could feel my chest get flaming hot, my head spin, and my throat close up. I was not meeting my full potential and I was failing: my two biggest fears. I was failing in front of the person I wanted to impress the most. I hit my emotional breaking point and started to cry.

I remember thinking, "Great. Now he thinks I suck and I'm a baby."

I will never forget what John did next. He came over to me, softened his usual stern and cold voice, and said, "You don't like these bars much do you?" I shook my head no, trying to make eye contact to show him respect, but my eyes were too watery to see his face clearly. He then said, "My girls hate these bars. I was very impressed you chose them. I have my Elites use them, as these are the bars that they use for international competitions."

John Geddert was showing me he understood my frustration?

He looked at me, pointed to the bars that had lines of gymnasts waiting to use them, and said, "I think you will like these two sets of bars better. I know it has been a difficult transition, but my gym is open to you. Don't let a set of Spieth bars be an unnecessary stress before Nationals."

I was comforted by John. To this day, I truly cannot understand why he had a soft spot for me. I was just an untalented crybaby for all he knew at this point. I think he could see my potential. Perhaps he knew my desire to outwork his team on my first day was out of respect for him.

I wanted to deserve to be there.

Nationals came even quicker than I had imagined. I traveled with the Twistars team, but stayed with my coach. I was so relieved it was finally time to compete after the stressful and chaotic few weeks leading up to it. Again, I watched the girls who were warming up. I felt more confident this year about my abilities. I felt like I belonged at the competition, but I was nervous about impressing my new coaches. I felt like I was trying out again, with the added stress of it being the most competitive event of my season and for one of the most successful gyms in the nation.

My first event went solid. I stopped watching the competition and only cared about doing my personal best to impress my new coaches at Twistars. By the last rotation, I had no idea where I was in the rankings, but both my coaches had a different attitude about my last event.

I figured they were just excited about the competition almost being done.

It wasn't until I was almost up when the Twistars coach approached me and said, "Rachel, you can win." Goosebumps shot through my body in disbelief.

Me? A National Champion? Could two weeks at Twistars really do that to my gymnastics?

Of course my last event was bars, the event that made my first practice at the new gym so horrendous. Again, God was giving me an opportunity for redemption. He was letting me show my full potential. For some reason, I wasn't nervous. I faced the judge to salute and begin my routine and saw the gymnast who was in second place standing behind the judges table... watching. She was watching to see if I would fail, and she would become a National Champion instead. She was waiting for me to hand her the trophy because of an error.

She will never understand how much that motivated me.

The routine felt like it was in slow motion. For every movement I was concentrating hard, saying my cue words, and preparing for the skill that would follow.

"Handstand. Slow. Tight. Breathe. Squeeze. Release." I remember how slow my dismount felt. My ears drowned out all of the noise, and I felt my feet hit the ground.

Stuck.

At my second Nationals, I became a National Champion.

***

I was surprised at how much I meshed with these girls I had once seen as gymnastics robots. My respect for John continued to grow as I trained for him. I could tell he cared about me because of how much I respected him. I was one of the few gymnasts that he never yelled at. I truly think he coached every person individually. Some of his gymnasts needed a greater shove to be motivated, and others were more goal-oriented on their own. Those who disrespected him by rolling their eyes, cheating on assignments, and skipping practice were treated with equal disrespect from him. Relationships were two-way streets to John.

My first summer at Twistars was harder than anything I had ever done before. For one, Twistars was an hour and a half away from my home, so 8 a.m. practices meant getting up at 5:45 every morning. We trained just the same as we did in season, never stopping to rest and always looking for ways to perfect the smallest deductions. I learned quickly why they were the cleanest, most consistent, and most competitive team in the nation.

Summers at Twistars also meant running. Oh, how I hated the running. John would gather the entire morning practice team and have us move outside. We did a sprinting sequence: sprint for thirty seconds, rest for ten seconds. This mirrored the endurance requirements for a floor routine.

I remember thinking, "No wonder Twistars gymnasts can make it through such difficult routines; they're trained for a marathon-length floor routine." We ran every day. On days where John could tell we were tired and hurting, he would let us stretch instead. There were always girls who would try to make up reasons to not run. John hated excuses. Even if I was sore I never told John I couldn't run. I always gave it my all. He saw me put everything I had left into the part of the training I hated the most.

One of the days after running I could feel my hamstring getting abnormally tight. It was painful, and I felt the need to grab on to hold it together or it would come flying off. It hurt every time I had to step forward, and splits were excruciating.

I let it hurt for weeks before I decided I needed to tell a coach. I hated being injured, and I held off from telling John as long as I could bear it to avoid having to miss practices to recover. I finally told him that I was in pain, where it hurt, and what it hurt to do. I remember telling him because it was the first time I had told John that I was in pain, and I was scared to disappoint him. I remember the way he looked at me when I was telling him and being surprised when he looked genuinely concerned.

Then I made the mistake of telling him that it had been hurting for quite some time, and he turned angry.

"Rachel. Why didn't you tell me right when it started hurting? Now it might be ten times more serious because you kept using it. Go stretch and ice."

Honestly, I think this was the very first time John was upset with me. I was truly working through it because I didn't want to disappoint him, but it backfired. I was never someone who faked pain to get out of doing assignments, and it made him believe me when I told him something hurt. He immediately sent me to see our team doctor.

He sent me to see Larry Nassar.

This was the first time of many times I would see Larry for my injuries. Before this, I had only heard of the magical doctor who healed the worst injuries. People said he had the kindest heart and was a saint in a gym full of powerful and intimidating figures. He listened to your problems and always took your side, even if it was against John. People described him as unimaginably selfless. He sacrificed his time every Monday night to come see Twistars gymnasts for free. He opened up his home, his office, and his training room to all of us at any point. From the outside, he seemed an angel.

Larry sent me for an MRI that showed I had a torn hamstring. It was not bad enough to require surgery, but it would be an extensive amount of time off and numerous meetings for physical therapy.

Naturally, he volunteered to be my physical therapist.

Larry and I worked together for months strengthening my hamstring. My mom came often with me, but sometimes she was absent when I saw him at the gym. Larry came when practice was over on Mondays. Coaches and girls who didn't have injuries went home, and we stayed to get our so-called treatment.

"Treatment."

I would most regularly see Larry at the gym on Mondays. His training room at Twistars was small, doubling as a storage room for our recreational equipment. It smelled musty and sweaty as we always saw him after a five-hour practice, so none of us were necessarily clean. People crammed into that tiny room even if he was "treating" someone so they could talk to him. There was absolutely no privacy. Both girls and boys saw Larry, and there was no curtain, no door, no separation from everyone seeing him perform his treatments... and he still did them.

Power of authority.

I was 14 years old at this point. I was 14 years old when Larry told me he was doing an "internal manipulation" on me. He told me pain in a tight hamstring can sometimes be lessened if the muscles around it are relaxed. He said this would require "internal massaging." He wasn't asking for permission to perform his treatment, he was more giving me a warning of what was coming. I still never said no. I didn't tell him to stop when I felt like I wanted to puke from discomfort. At 14 years old, part of me knew something wasn't right, but I never told him I wasn't going to let him do it anymore.

I dreaded the days I had to see Larry because of the way he made my body feel. I worried about what he was thinking about. I was curious if he was judging my body. I told myself the typical statement we all tell ourselves when we have uncomfortable and vulnerable appointments with medical professionals: "He sees hundreds of girls; he won't remember my body." I told myself his power, credentials, prestige, and authority gave him the right to treat my body how he saw best for my injury. His power and authority trumped my comfort and ethics — a disgusting flaw in the culture of gymnastics. I know Larry remembers my body.

He continued to perform manipulations on me until my hamstring felt normal again a few months later.

***

COURTESY OF RACHEL HAINES
  • Courtesy of Rachel Haines

My season continued to be strong and consistent. I was always a tough competitor, even against the more experienced level 10s. I continued to complete the recruiting questionnaires that were sent to me, and kept "earn a college scholarship" at the top of my priority list. My performances were getting me closer and closer to reaching this goal, and with every meet I could feel myself getting more and more excited for my future.

As if life was waiting for the perfect time to change the future I was planning, emotional distress number two happened.

My back had been starting to ache shortly after the season began. It hurt mostly to bend forward, but not enough to complain to anyone but my parents. My mom had me taking medicine for it before practices. She continued to ask me if I wanted to get it looked at. Although it hurt, it wasn't enough to stop me from competing. I didn't want to know if anything was wrong. It was gradually getting worse, but I wasn't going to let it ruin the season that I was having. Ignorance was bliss.

It was a typical practice day at Twistars. We were training hard with two weeks before the Regional Competition. I knew I needed to qualify to Nationals if I had any hope of committing to a college the following year. John was coaching every deduction out of our routines. Practices were brutal and everyone was on edge.

A teammate of mine decided that this was the day she was going to tick John off with disrespect. She was falling on every routine and clearly had given up on completing the assignment for bars. She spent an extra long time in the chalk bucket just to irritate John more. She wouldn't look at him when he was giving her corrections and was ignoring John's threats to send her home.

John lost it.

"Everyone to the floor! We're gonna run."

And so we ran. For a long time. The girl who was to blame for this ran with such a disrespectful glare it even ticked me off. My body hurt so much; my muscles were so tired. My already aching back was getting stiffer. I was going to be extremely sore for the 8 a.m. practice we had the next morning.

As I predicted, I woke up in so much pain. I slathered Icy Hot on my body and resented the girl who was the reason behind the stiffness. I hoped she knew how mad the team was at her. I hoped she felt bad.

Knowing her, she probably didn't even care.

I started on beam that morning. Getting myself through the running warm-up was nearly impossible, and here I was about to do five beam routines. I looked at the line on the floor that I usually warmed up my skills on. I thought to myself, "If I don't warm up my skills on the floor, that's a few fewer times I have to move my stiff and sore body."

My life's biggest mistake. I wish with every ounce of my body I had just warmed up my skills on that stupid line.

I hopped on the beam to begin routine one. My body was so sore. I moved through the choreography and prepared for my first skill: a back tuck into a straddle jump full. My arms swung down below my body and I bent forward to create momentum for my flight.

I felt my lower back crack loudly as I bent forward. The muscles around my spine were so tight they felt like they had snapped me in half. I lost my breath.

My muscle memory took over and continued through the motions of the back tuck. My body flew up like it usually did for the skill, and my back cracked again in the air. It all happened so fast, but felt like it was in slow motion. I was upside down in the air above the beam. I knew my back was broken, but I still had to land. My feet hit the beam first, then my hands reached forward to grab it as I landed short. I crumpled to the ground below the beam. I let my body fall six feet into a heap on the mat, and my spine cracked and shifted one last time. I couldn't breathe.

John was at my side in seconds. I couldn't move; I couldn't stand up. He picked me up and I cried in pain. He hadn't seen me cry since my very first practice with him. He carried me to the floor; my teammate had already made a bag of ice.

My memory has since blocked out what happened after that moment.

The next thing I remember doing was driving to Larry's office at Michigan State. I remember sitting there while he tried to pinpoint the areas that were tender to the touch. I remember him "mmming" every time I said it hurt. He knew exactly what was wrong. He looked at me and said, "Do you want to go to Nationals?" I, of course, answered, "Yes." He then said, "Then we will wait until Nationals is over to get an MRI." He knew what an MRI would show, and he knew it would keep me from competing. I also knew what it would show. I was in denial that this was how my season was going to end. I refused to accept my injury and I ignored my pain. My parents trusted Larry's words and believed it when he said I was not putting myself in more danger if I kept training, that I would only be challenging my pain tolerance. My parents hated the idea of pushing through what was clearly a serious injury. I am so stubborn, and my parents knew they couldn't stop me.

Once I set my mind to something, nobody can stop me.

John knew I was hurting, and he also knew I wasn't going to stop training. He recognized the importance of this season from a college scholarship perspective, and he was not going to stand in the way of my finishing the way I wanted to. He also trusted Larry. He forced me to take a few days off of practice, and then let me come back to prepare for Regionals.

Honestly, my training was a medicated and adrenaline-filled blur. I was in an indescribable amount of pain, but it hurt more to think about taking time off to heal at this point in my season.

Larry volunteered to work with me again to get me through the end of season. In fact, he told me that the only way that I would finish the season was if I continued to work with him only, that every other doctor would force me to stop. I went into his room like I had for my hamstring injury, and he gave me the same talk about tight muscles in my groin area having effects on the pain around it. He told me I would again need his "internal manipulations" for my back injury. I remember thinking that it was weird. What did my muscles that low have to do with my injury in my spine?

But like every other girl, I trusted him and his treatments.

Again I dreaded appointments with Larry because I knew what they entailed. I started thinking about future sessions, and my fear of the discomfort grew with every visit. I knew this injury was bad and was going to take a lot of time off and rehab — a lot of sessions with Larry. I dreaded how the next few months would make my body feel discomfort beyond the shattered spine.

John reduced my numbers tremendously in practice. He wouldn't let me do a single floor routine, and he barely let me vault. He saw one good turn and made me get off the event. He had me visualizing routines thousands of times. He told me to do walk-through routines without the skills. He asked me to picture the sounds, smells, and feelings of the arena. He had me solidifying my cue words. He convinced me of the power of mental preparation. He told me that four mental routines is the equivalent to one physical routine with the way our brain stimulates the nerves during visualizations.

But I hated how unprepared I felt for a meet so important to my future. I walked into Regionals having yet to do a full floor routine because John hadn't let me. I had shooting pain down my legs that made every twist and turn extra excruciating. I saw Larry before the meet began. (Of course, he had volunteered to work the event as the trainer.) He threw some kinesio tape across my back, over my butt, and down my legs. He knew my back was fractured, but he wasn't about to upset one of his regular visitors by forcing me to stop and heal.

I was in my own world for Regionals. I ignored everyone. I focused on my one goal of getting to Nationals and I did the bare minimum. I started on vault. I went over the horse for warm-up twice compared to my usual four or five times. I saluted the judge and completed my vault. I landed on my feet and that was good enough for John. He scratched me from competing my second vault.

Bars and beam were nothing above average. I didn't fall, and that met John's lowered expectations for me. I started to look around at the other gymnasts competing. I stared at vault and watched a girl stumble out of her landing. I looked over to bars and saw another gymnast cast over on a handstand.

I remember thinking, "Why is everybody falling?"

John came back to where I was waiting for my turn to start warming up for floor. He said, "Rachel, all you have to do to make it to Nationals is not fall in this routine. You need to fight to stay up." It seemed like everyone was having an off day, if what I was doing was good enough to qualify.

What John told me would have been comforting if it were anything but floor left. I hadn't landed a full routine on the event in almost three weeks. My legs were shooting with pain and my back felt like it was bruising itself with how hard it was throbbing. I looked at my parents in the crowd, and they looked so nervous. My mom smiled and my dad put his hands together to form a heart in front of his chest. They hated seeing me in pain, but they never stopped supporting me. They reminded me how loved I was no matter what happened on this last event.

I warmed up the bare minimum as I could feel my medication wearing off. I felt my back start to seize and all of my ribs shift out of place to adjust to the tightened muscles that were trying to protect my fracture. Everyone knows what a rib out of place feels like, so you can imagine how all of them shifting incorrectly feels.

It was my turn next. "Just stay standing," I kept telling myself. "Two more minutes of pain, and then you're done." My mental toughness was strengthening by the second. I forced myself to ignore the pain, and my mind let me. My adrenaline surged through my spine and numbed it. I saluted, and my music began.

I stood in the corner to begin my first tumbling pass. Deep breath. My head started streaming through my cue words. "Push, hurdle, roundoff, back handspring, set, flip, flip, spot, stick." My body listened and performed what I had been visualizing hundreds of times. One pass down, two to go.

I pushed off the ground into my switch leap, and my feet landed together to rebound into my jump. "Ouch!" I screamed in my head as my rebound was slightly crooked and shot pain up through my spine and down my legs.

"Refocus, Rachel." My thoughts scolded me for thinking about my pain.

I stood in the corner and took a deep breath before my second pass. "Push, hurdle, roundoff, back handspring, set, twist hard, punch, flip, spot, stick." My two-and-a-half-punch front tuck put me on my feet again. Two passes down, one to go. I was almost done; I could feel it. One pass left. It would all be over in fifteen seconds. I got to the corner for my final pass and took one last deep breath.

"Run, push, hurdle, roundoff, back handspring, set, flip, flip, spot, stick."

"Owwwwwww!"

The landing of my last pass shot lightning bolts of pain throughout my entire body. My eyes started to water. I disregarded my practiced choreography that required me to do a few more movements around the floor and instead stayed planted where I landed, moving just my arms. It looked terrible, but I was done. I had qualified to Nationals. John was right next to me when I got off the mat and gave me a hug.

"Good job, sweetheart."

I looked to my parents again in the crowd. Mom smiled, and dad shot me two thumbs up. I could tell part of them hated that I had one more meet, that they would have to watch me push through my pain for two more weeks.

Part of me hated it, too.

While I was seeing Larry after the meet, I saw the other gymnasts who had qualified for Nationals go into a large room and come out with both arms filled with new gear to wear to Nationals. Bags filled with new sweatpants, sweatshirts, blankets, sunglasses, beach towels, and raincoats, all completely decked out in our region's logo and colors. This was so much more than what we had gotten in level 9. When I got to the room after "treatment," I realized that it was even more overwhelming than I had imagined. Twenty volunteers stood behind huge tables packed full of what we were about to be given. They sized us and threw things into our arms until they were full. They sized us for our beautiful National leos.

***

click to enlarge “I had quite literally shattered my spine with one backflip.” - COURTESY OF RACHEL HAINES
  • Courtesy of Rachel Haines
  • “I had quite literally shattered my spine with one backflip.”
The morning of Nationals I did my usual prep routine. My mom braided my hair and put it into a bun filled with three thousand bobby pins piercing my skull. She slipped me my lucky ice cream sandwich in secret, because if John knew that was what I was eating to fuel myself for a competition he would have lost his mind. He also would have disapproved of my dependence on a superstition. It was a tradition we thought best to keep a secret. I took my pain meds and walked to the arena.

I started on vault, same as Regionals. I wasn't going to do too many vaults in the warm-ups, just enough to feel ready. I stood on the blue felted runway as our warm-up began. My first time running to the vault I realized the step I usually take my hurdle on was way too far away from the horse than it should have been. My steps were completely off. The tape measure must have been a different distance from the horse than the one at my gym at home. I hadn't been allowed to get used to this tape measure during the practice day because of the stupid no flipping rule placed on me. Again, using different equipment in gymnastics is very difficult to adjust to. Everyone else knew their steps, since they had the day before to figure them out. Pure anxiety took over my body. Figuring out your steps takes at least four turns to feel comfortable before you're able to safely flip over the horse. I only had time for four turns down the runway total and only had the physical strength for two.

I had already wasted one of those two chances on realizing I had no idea what my steps were.

I ran down the runway again. My hurdle was way too close to the horse this time, but I went for it anyway.

Stupid.

My feet barely made it onto the springboard and I crashed onto the horse. My arms buckled on what should have been a back handspring onto the table, and the top of my head smashed into it from the missing support. I didn't go for the flip, but I still had the height and momentum to. My back landed flat on the mat hard after falling from nearly ten feet in the air. Smacking the mat with such force made a monstrous noise that echoed throughout the arena. All eyes were on me, watching as my eyes filled with water reacting to my fractured back crashing into the hard ground.

John helped me up. He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. I knew what he was thinking. He was mad I balked on my flip. If I had tucked and rolled my back would have been safe(er). He always told us to never balk because it was so dangerous.

"Are you good to compete or are we done?" he asked.

I nodded yes and said, "I'm competing."

My warm-up was over. The two times down the runway I was allowed were wasted and my body was nowhere near ready to compete. I walked back to the end of the runway and paced. I thought maybe I could walk off the pain. There were a few girls who had to compete before it was my turn, so I visualized. I knew two places I couldn't start my run. One was way too far away from the horse and the other was way too close. John could see my stress building up. He came to me, pointed to his temple and said, "Be tough up here, or don't go." He didn't want me to make another stupid mistake that would injure me even more. He reminded me how mentally strong I was. He reminded me to trust my mental training.

It was my turn. I walked up next to the runway and stood at the spot in between the two I had tried during warm-ups and failed at. I saluted the judges. The sound of the arena drowned out and I only heard the air inhale and exhale out of my nose for one final big breath. I ran, and my cue words streamed through my mind to match my body's movements. "Push, speed, too far from the horse . . . adjust, faster, hurdle, roundoff, block, twist, stick."

John clapped hard and whistled. He hugged me tight.

"Go sit down. We have some time before bars." I glanced over at the college coaches tables. They were all sitting today, taking notes and videotaping. There was no mingling; today was business. Today they were shopping for future investments.

Sixteen-year-old pieces of property.

***

click to enlarge X-Ray showing fractures to Haines’ spine. - COURTESY OF RACHEL HAINES
  • Courtesy of Rachel Haines
  • X-Ray showing fractures to Haines’ spine.

I left the meet exhausted — emotionally, physically, and mentally drained. I was so happy to be done, and I was beyond ready to heal. When I got home, I finally went to the hospital and got an X-ray and MRI. Sure enough, I had three fractures in my lumbar spine. I had felt right when each had individually happened. My MRI looked terrible. It had fractures everywhere, discs slipped forward, and discs bulging far into my spinal cord. The slipped discs were the likely cause of my back pain before the back tuck, but a month before, I had quite literally shattered my spine with one backflip.


I sat in the offices of the almost ten doctors I saw. I stared at my feet as they told me the same thing as the one I had seen before. My mom asked so many questions. My parents were there as I met with doctor after doctor, listening to my options. They heard all of them saying similar things.

"You need a very invasive spine fusion surgery that will make it impossible to come back to gymnastics."

"You have to quit gymnastics."

"You won't be able to control your bladder when you're 30 if you keep doing gymnastics."

I ignored them. I drowned out their words. They weren't what I wanted to hear, so I didn't listen. I was such a brat of a teenager. My parents absorbed everything and kept looking for more opinions. Maybe they kept looking because they knew I wasn't going to stop doing the sport that I loved. Or maybe they thought if I heard that I needed to quit from ten different doctors, I would listen.

But one doctor gave me another option. One doctor believed a comeback was possible. He told me it would be a long road to recovery, but that I could do it. I could continue to be a gymnast. I latched onto the words from one doctor and ignored the rest.

That one doctor was Larry.

***

Seasons as a gymnast blend together. After you compete for twenty years, meets don't stand out in memory unless something happened at them. Many of my meets stood out because I was in so much pain, so I am happy that the summer following my junior year in high school is hard to remember — it means nothing traumatic happened. It was my senior year and my last summer with Twistars. John had given me a new sense of leadership and encouraged me to be a source of guidance for the gymnasts younger than me.

This was the summer John let the seniors lead the horrendous running that we did every summer. I liked this new power he gave us, as it made me feel like I had a new motivation to do the running that I didn't have before. I even remember some days John would come and ask me how my body felt, and I would be honest and say that it was sore from a new conditioning list we were trying. He always believed me, and sometimes even told the entire team not to run that day because of my honesty. John's trust in those who respected him was unmissable.

That September, the other seniors and I signed our letters of intent to the colleges where we would continue our gymnastics careers. We had one senior going to UCLA to be on the coaching staff, three would compete at Western Michigan, one went to Ohio State, and I went to Minnesota. We all confirmed that our time with gymnastics wasn't over, and John once again had gotten a full class the opportunity to continue at a college level.

I loved the class that I graduated with. Together, we were a group of solid leaders who meshed wonderfully. We had bonded so much that we planned a trip to Disney together after the conclusion of our final meet the next season. We had been through everything together. One of the girls had even broken her back at the same time as me. We did rehab together, stretched together, and saw Larry together.

My back still throbbed during every practice, and my legs continued to get more and more numb. Larry kept encouraging me and kept working with me. I continued to see him every Monday even though I was doing 100 percent of my practices. He had informed me that continuing to see him would be vital to maintaining the pain level I had and not letting it get any worse. He told me that my sessions with him had transitioned from healing therapy to preventive measures. He warned me that if the treatments stopped, my back would hurt worse. He told me that if this happened, I would no longer be a gymnast. I was questioning why the therapy stayed the same when it was meant for a different purpose, but my fear of losing gymnastics outweighed every discomfort I had. Larry was still willing to work with me through my pain, so I was willing to push past how he made me feel. He was fighting to keep me as a regular visitor.

A consistent quiet victim.

***

Shortly after the season ended, things started to change. Our male head coach stopped coming to practices. There were rumors and tons of tension on the team. The freshmen were kept entirely in the dark until one day an article was published.

One of my teammates had come forward as a victim of our male coach, and our team was in shock. It seemed the upperclassmen were in on the details long before the news came out. They all knew which teammate it was and what the allegations were. We freshmen, on the other hand, were left completely in the dark. We had no idea what was happening besides the fact that one of our coaches was never going to be returning to practice. His wife, our head coach, remained.

Our team began to self-destruct. Some of the girls took the side of the victim, claiming to have also been made to feel uncomfortable by advances by our coach. Some of us had no idea what was happening. There was a clearly defined line that divided our team into two armies. Our close-knit culture crumbled.

Time kept moving and we kept practicing. The gym had the largest elephant in the room as we tried to work past the larger issue none of us wanted to talk about. The victim wouldn't admit it was her to the underclassmen, and it made us resent those who were older. Seniority trumped fairness and equality. We knew that everyone else except us knew what was going on, and it stung. Our team lost every connection we had built the previous year.

A few months later, we were hit with another brick in the face.

Our head coach was gone. Investigation after investigation happened that summer. I was interviewed so many times about things I knew nothing about. I had no information, yet my coach's job depended on the answers I gave. Because I was kept in the dark by the upperclassmen, I was watching my program crumble before my eyes in my second year there, with no understanding as to why.

Our team fell apart. Half of us resented the other half because they weren't telling us the truth. The other half resented us because we weren't being empathetic in a situation we knew nothing about. We went into the search for a new head coach with a clearly cold culture. The team interviewed three coaches for the open position: two outside applicants, and one in-house applicant. The assistant coach we had the year before decided to apply and had made it to the final round of interviews.

This wreaked havoc on the team.

***

MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
  • Michigan Department of Corrections

Our assistant coach was named as interim head coach in October. This was midway through preseason, when we were supposed to be perfecting the smallest deductions in our routine, not finally solidifying who would coach us. Our male assistant coach left, and we remained with two open coaching positions. Those spots would officially be filled in December, one month before the season began. We went into the season unprepared, divided, and broken.

That year we defeated Iowa State, Michigan State, Ohio State, New Hampshire, Iowa, Maryland, and Rutgers. We went from a 27–6 record the year before to a 12–16 record. The reason our win number was even that high was because we faced teams we could beat multiple times in the same season. We were nowhere close to qualifying to Nationals for the second year. My pride in my gymnastics, and my team, was damaged. We were distant and disconnected as a team, and you could see it. We had lost our culture, and everyone could tell. Our success as gymnasts reflected our success as a team.

I had begun to break down mentally, physically, and emotionally.

My back pain reached a new level. It was becoming unbearable and made me resent going to practices. During the summer of 2015, I reached out to Larry for advice. I told him how much it hurt, and how I was forced to stop training floor because it hurt so much. My favorite event was taken from me because of my stupid injury. I cried on the phone with him. He knew I was calling for reassurance that I was OK; he knew I wanted him to say he believed in me; he knew I was calling him as my one last hope of continuing my career.

"I think it is time for you to be done. Gymnastics isn't safe for you to do anymore."

My world came to a stinging halt. What... what did he just say? Did Larry just tell me I was done? My chest burned red, my muscles started to twitch in seizure-like movements. My head clouded. My breathing turned into hyperventilating. The only man who ever believed in me didn't anymore. The only doctor who told me my comeback was possible said it no longer was. The only person who had ever given me hope took it away. He was so cold, like he had never cared. My mind was spinning. Everything I thought I knew, I questioned. Everything was fuzzy, except for the one obvious thing that was slapping me in the face.

If Larry thought I should be done, then I should be done.

I knew Larry rarely told people their bodies weren't able to do gymnastics anymore. Why would he? It would lessen his pool of victims. I knew when he suggested quitting, you quit. It was the last resort for Larry. His wildcard statement. If he played his wildcard, you knew you had reached the end of the deck.

I thought more often than I can describe about why Larry changed his mind at this moment.

What was different then from all the times I had wanted his opinion before? Why did he stop fighting for me?

I have since figured out why. Larry was faced with a misconduct complaint in 2014, the very beginning of the storm. He was not charged, but in 2015, right when Larry told me my career was over, he was fired from USA Gymnastics for sexual misconduct. The claims were increasing. Victims were coming forward. He was getting scared.

Larry knew what storm was coming. He knew exactly what was going to happen to him because of the number of gymnasts he abused. He knew I was one of his victims, a regular and consistent victim. He cut me loose so I would stop seeing him. He hoped I would forget the "treatment" he had performed on me for six years. He tried to disconnect from everyone he had abused in the hope the storm would dissipate instead of continuing to grow.

Little did he know that the storm would grow to be more terrifying than his worst nightmare.

More informaton about Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture is available from rowman.com.

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